It would have been easy to put any number of others in this slot, as they might have a stronger overall resume at cruiserweight. It’s just that Qawi was slightly more badass than those guys and really the first guy to bring attention to the division as its first name champion. And while giving points for losses can be a faulty way to evaluate legacies, the fact that he was the only man to threaten to beat Holyfield until Evander fought Riddick Bowe years later counts for a lot. After Michael Spinks ended his glorious title run at 175, Qawi moved up, beating contender Michael Greer, before stopping unbeaten WBA champ Piet Crous in his native South Africa. Knocked out a slipping Leon Spinks in defense before his glorious stand against a young Holyfield. Remained a factor for several years, with wins over former champ Lee Roy Murphy and Tyrone Booze and an absolute robbery loss to Ossie Ocasio.
The often-overlooked Mormeck was the top guy in the division for some time, unifying the title for the first time since the days of Holyfield. He became the only man besides Roy Jones to stop Virgil Hill for his first title, who had just knocked out another good champion in Fabrice Tiozzo in the first round. Mormeck stopped two good contenders in, Dale Brown and Alexander Gurov, before repeating the win over an aging Hill. Beat undefeated Wayne Braithwaite to snag another belt before a puzzling stoppage loss to inconsistent O’Neil Bell. He came back to beat Bell and regain his belts before falling to Haye in a fight where he also had his man on the floor. Mormeck was one of the more ambitious cruiserweights of all time in terms of matchmaking and stood out from the rest of the pack by partly consolidating the titles.
Largely forgotten, the Congo-born Frenchman was a classy 6’3” boxer of considerable skill and durability, even if he didn’t light the world on fire when he fought. With a questionable decision loss early in his career and an egregious DQ loss on his opponent’s home floor, one can say that the 46-2-1 Wamba was never beaten in the ring. They bounced back from the scandalous loss to WBC champ Massimiliano Duran and stopped him in 11 to begin a nice title reign. Defended against Duran, Andrew Maynard, rugged countryman Akim Tafer, and Adolpho Washington, and unbeaten Marcelo Dominguez–both of whom would go on to claim world titles.
He defended the title five times and faced five World Champions. He fought, among others, James Warring, Juan Carlos Gomez, and Milton McCrory. Cole had a solid jab and a good right hand, and he showed a solid chin during his cruiserweight career.
Cunningham is one of the more impressive-looking cruiserweights of all time. Even though he sometimes never fought to his full potential, his resume is impossible to dismiss. His wins over Guillermo Jones, Krzysztof Wlodarczyk, and Marco Huck–all former world champions, represent perhaps the most top-heavy list of wins of any cruiserweight. Cunningham has also beaten notable cruiserweights such as Kelvin Davis, Wayne Braithwaite, and Troy Ross.
Does it say a lot about this division’s lack of meaningful history that he can claim the #6 spot? Maybe a little bit of both, but Haye did something that had not been done since the days of Holyfield, and that was clean out the division and establish clear-cut superiority over his peers. By the time Haye moved up to heavyweight, he had established a clear margin of dominance over the rest of the weight class. He got off the canvas to knock out unified champion Jean-Marc Mormeck before starching WBO titlist Enzo Maccarinelli in 2 heats to consolidate his world title claims. The depth of his resume might not be awe-inspiring, but becoming “the man” in a division with slim pickings counts for a lot.
Not an easy guy to rank. From a purely naked-eye point of view, he was probably the second-best cruiserweight of all time. But his cruiserweight legacy, not that he paid it much mind, suffers since he left the division immediately after winning a title. However, to his credit, he beat an excellent champion in Vassiliy Jirov in one of the best demonstrations of boxing ever seen in this division. And his 4-year run at cruiserweight was productive, as he beat some name guys without being seriously challenged. Though he didn’t always have the belts to prove it, Toney was probably the best guy in this weight class during his tenure.
Nelson might not have been that great of a fighter. He was awkward and inconsistent for much of his career, losing too many cruisers and heavyweights before finding solid footing. At the same time, he went unbeaten almost the final decade of his career, including a nearly 7-year run as WBO champion, which included 14 defenses. First, they knocked out Carl Thompson for the title before defending against Marcelo Dominguez and Guillermo Jones, among others.
Fighting as a lightweight as recently as 1976, the mercurial DeLeon was cruiserweight champion by 1980. His world championship resume spanned a decade, with the Puerto Rican slickster winning the cruiserweight title 5 times. Beat all the top cruiserweights from the first half of the ’80s, including Marvin Camel and ST Gordon. He took some puzzling losses, dropping his belt to Gordon and Alonzo Ratliff, but always bounced back with key wins. Lost resoundingly to Holyfield in a 1988 unification match but regained the WBC throne upon Holyfield moving up to heavyweight. DeLeon was an excellent fighter and undoubtedly the top cruiserweight for the division’s first 5-6 years.
This is not recency bias as Usyk cleaned out the Cruiserweight division. Usyk was the first Ukrainian undisputed champion. He is particularly notable for the speed of his accomplishments, winning his first world title in his tenth fight, and becoming the undisputed champion of his weight class by his fifteenth fight. Usyk vacated his cruiserweight titles in 2019 to move up to heavyweight. By that point, in sixteen fights he had defeated five current or former world champions.
Not many divisions exist where the #1 choice is this clear, but there really is no argument about the identity of the greatest cruiserweight of all time. After turning pro at light heavyweight, the maturing Holyfield soon joined the ranks of the cruiserweight division, where he began a reign of dominance that has not been seen since. Beat Dwight Muhammad Qawi in a draining 15-rounder for his first belt before unifying the belts against Rickey Parkey and Carlos DeLeon. Also knocked out former champ Ossie Ocasio, gold medallist Henry Tillman, and Qawi in a rematch. Evander was unparalleled at this weight.
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